If you frequent very many writing related websites or forums, you’ll know there’s been a bit of hubbub recently over reviews. Mainly over writers and agents and publishers either responding to reviews inappropriately, or writing posts on how a reviewer should review, or stating how reviewers should feel responsible (read: guilty) for any direct impact their review might have on an author’s sales.
This behavior is not new. People behave badly when they feel they’ve been slighted. I’m sure we’ve all failed to censor ourselves–especially on the internet–at some point or another when a stranger pushed our buttons. No, it’s not ok, but nor is it something worthy of a black mark if it happens on rare occasion. As long as it’s happening away from your very public professional life. Because, when it comes to business, people expect professionalism, and they should get it.
I’m not here to rail against any one individual in the publishing industry who I believe has behaved inappropriately. That’s why you won’t find any links in this post. I’m here to talk about it more generally.
Some of the recent problems could have been easily avoided if the individuals had some sort of background in business ethics. One repeated sentiment is that bad reviews hurt sales, so reviewers who give “negative” reviews should feel responsible for taking money out of an author’s pocket.
Hold on. If money is making it into an author’s pocket it has to come from somewhere. It has to come out of someone else’s pocket. It’s someone else’s hard-earned money before it’s the authors.
And that person–consumer, reader, fan–has every right to hear other’s honest opinions on the book, then to choose to buy the book or not based on the information they have.
Asking a reviewer to slant their review in the author’s favor (out of guilt) is asking them to lie. As an editor, asking an author to favorably review other books put out by your publishing house just because is asking them to lie (note this is different than getting reviews and blurbs in-house in general). Asking people who like your book to drown out a bad review with a bunch of new, good reviews, is asking them to hide the truth–which is as bad as a lie. All of these requests are the same as flat out asking someone to be a shill (Edit: see my previous business ethics post if you need a definition for shill).
Really, what the above sort of statement about “hurting sales” indicates is that the author believes they are more important than their customers. That it is ok to trick someone into spending money on a product they might not want, because it is more important that the author not lose a sale.
I saw this sort of behavior referred to as “tacky” on a forum. It’s not just tacky, it’s unethical.
The next thing I have a problem with is what some of them consider a “negative” review. Everything from a three-star no-comment Amazon review, to a two column newspaper spread with a “tone,” to a flat out manifesto against the author seems to count. Not all negativity is created equal, and some of what’s lumped in with the clearly negative only seems to count because it can’t be classified as glowing.
And it’s these middle-of-the-road, very fair, well thought out, but not glowing reviews that I’m seeing most often attacked. Perhaps because the author is more inclined to feel that this sort of review is a discussion (whereas a review that’s clearly bad-bad-bad can just be written off with “that person is angry at the world”). A review is not a discussion. It is a statement of opinion, and the good ones provide rational support for their opinion. This does not mean an author can argue against their opinion. It’s an opinion–subjective–and not something that’s bound to change because the author (or publisher, or agent) says it should. Like with critiques, the only appropriate response is thank you (if you give one at all, reviews require no comment).
If whining about a fair review and asking people to lie so the author won’t lose money isn’t enough, or seems baffling, the next point might explain a lot.
We all know that a lot of writers (I could go bigger and even claim artists in general) have delicate egos. Egos that can be hugely inflated, which means they whither at the slightest pin-prick. Some people just can’t handle the idea that a random individual didn’t like their work. That someone found fault with their baby (yes, I have an issue with people referring to their work as babies. But that’s another discussion). After all, the work was good enough to get published, which means it must be golden.
If the work is golden, why is it getting bad reviews? Ah, of course, there has to be an explanation outside of the text. Not just outside, but totally unrelated to the text.
So then, what do these poorly-behaving industry professionals blame? Not fault in the work.
Who do they blame? Not unsatisfied customers, oh no.
They blame unpublished writers and people who personally hold a grudge against the author/editor/publishing house/agent.
Now, I’m not going to say jealousy and bad blood have never birthed unfavorable reviews. They have. But that type of reviewer is easier to spot than a shill. Has there been a sudden influx of one stars on a three-to-four star book, perhaps with really strange comments that clearly indicate the reviewer hasn’t even seen the text? Well, there you go: anti-shill aboard. Yes, anti-shills are just as unethical as regular shills. And some people might say they’re worse, because they’re mean. (And yes, there is a more technical term for when rival businesses are involved in bad-mouthing competitors, I’ll try to cover that later.)
Just like a regular shill, you should avoid becoming an anti-shill at all costs. When you review a book the only ethical thing to review is the contents of the book. Not an author’s politics. Not an editor’s feelings towards your work (favorable or otherwise). Nothing but what’s between the covers (the covers themselves are also fair game).
Anyone who reads on a regular basis is bound to come across a book they don’t like. I think I usually read (or don’t finish reading) one a year I think is worthy of throwing in the waste bin (though I don’t. I mean, it’s a book). But for every one I dislike that much, there are at least ten I like to some degree.
Since I’m an unpublished writer, shouldn’t that mean that I dislike all those published books because I’m so darn jealous? And that every time I review a book it should be full of subtle slights, and harsh digs, and subliminal messages about how great I am, and– ok, I can’t even go on. The idea that all negative reviews are generated by jealous hopefuls or by grudge wielding crazies is so out there I can’t even imagine how someone argues rationally for it.
Writers love to read. Which means they like many things they read. Which means they want the writers they like to read to keep producing books. Which means they want them to sell books. Which means they want people to know how good the books are so they’ll buy them.
That I’ve seen, writers give very balanced reviews. Because they understand what it’s like to hand over your work to the world and watch it be torn apart. They understand the author is a person and not just some nameless, faceless book-producing machine.
As for the idea that all other bad reviews are produced by grudge holders: what does that say about the person who believes they’re being attacked? Do you really have that many people out there who dislike you that much? What kind of person must one be to produce a slue of enemies that know exactly where to attack: in the reviews! (Again, this is not to say this doesn’t legitimately happen. John Scalzi certainly gets his share of attack reviews. So does N.K. Jemisin. As do people like Victoria Strauss and A. C. Crispin: Their exceptional work tracking down scam artists and people who take advantage of authors has made them quite a few enemies.)
So, in conclusion, I believe a lpt of this reviewing of the review comes from two places: a lack of business know-how and understanding of ethics, and from personal insecurities. Understand how your behavior affects your career. Let your work speak for itself. If it’s good, it will generate a positive review to balance out that negative one all on its own. If it doesn’t, be confident in your ability to learn and improve, don’t snap at those who reveal true flaws.
Reviews are mostly for readers, by readers. And readers have no obligation to the author to spin their statements, or even go easy when they really believe in what they’re saying. Their only obligation is to be honest.
A review might not be a discussion, but a blog post is. What’s your take on all the recent commotion?